Ethiopia protests: more than 80 killed as singer’s murder lays bare grievances

Haacaaluu Hundeessaa in 2019. His music served as the soundtrack to Oromos opposing political exclusion. Photograph: Tiksa Negeri/Reuters


Ethiopian troops have been deployed in the country’s capital in a second day of unrest, sparked by the assassination of the popular musician Haacaaluu Hundeessaa, which has claimed more than 80 lives.



Protests after Haacaaluu’s murder on Monday tapped into grievances fuelled by decades of government repression and what the Oromo, Ethiopia’s biggest ethnic group, describe as their historic exclusion from political power.

“I am angry. It’s eating me inside,” said Ishetu Alemu, a protester, as tyres smouldered in the street behind him.

Gunshots could be heard in many neighbourhoods, and gangs armed with machetes and sticks roamed the streets. Witnesses described a situation pitting youths of Oromo origin against other ethnic groups and the police.



“We had a meeting with the community, and we were told to arm ourselves with anything we have, including machetes and sticks. We no longer trust the police to protect us so we have to prepare ourselves,” said one resident in the capital, Addis Ababa, who like others interviewed asked not to be named for fear of reprisals.

Many residents fear that Haacaaluu’s funeral, scheduled for Thursday in his home town, Ambo, could lead to more violence.

“Security forces have invaded our town, we can’t go out to mourn. No vehicles are moving around except security patrols with machine guns,” Chala Hunde, 27, a student, told Reuters by phone from Ambo, about 60 miles west of Addis. “The security forces are putting a finger in our wound.”



Prof Awol Allo, at Keele University, England, said a tussle over whether to bury Haacaaluu in Ambo or Addis had laid bare the political tensions fanning the protests. “It’s very contentious. Oromos claim the city [Addis] to be theirs, as it lies fully within the Oromo regional state.” But the capital is under federal, not regional control.

The state broadcaster reported the arrest of the prominent journalist and activist Eskinder Nega, a former political prisoner who runs a pressure group opposed to what it describes as Oromo attempts to dominate the capital.

The dispute over Addis triggered three years of bloody street demonstrations that led to the resignation of the previous prime minister and Abiy Ahmed’s appointment to the post in 2018. Haacaaluu’s music was the soundtrack to a generation of young Oromos who led the protests.

The regional police commissioner, Bedassa Merdassa, told the state-run Ethiopian Broadcasting Corporation on Wednesday that more than 80 people had been killed in the clashes in Oromiya on Tuesday, including protesters and three members of the security forces. The dead also included 78 civilians, he said.

Another potential flashpoint was the arrest on Tuesday of the Oromo opposition leader, Bekele Gerba, and the media mogul Jawar Mohammed.

Abiy, Haacaaluu and Jawar are all Oromo. The singer and media owner were more critical of the prime minister in recent months; some Oromo activists have accused Ethiopia’s 41-year-old prime minister of repression.

In federal Ethiopia power is traditionally derived through the control of large ethnic voting blocs. Under the previous administration voting was rarely free or fair; opposition activists were jailed, tortured or driven into exile.
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